TPatrick Holford, on programmes such as GMTV and Tonight with Trevor McDonald. However, we fear that the charity’s unscientific approach and practices, their associations with very controversial sources of medical opinion, and the links between Food for the Brain and supplement businesses may subvert these aims and even do children harm.he charity ‘Food for the Brain’ has laudable stated aims: helping educate parents and teachers about how children’s nutrition can be improved and how this may help them at school. Food for the Brain has achieved a high profile, through appearances of its founder and CEO,
Specifically, we have the following concerns:
- The ‘trials’ being undertaken are unscientific and produce ambiguous results. The Schools Projects that looks for improved school performance after making changes in children’s diets, supplement intake and exercise are not scientific and are likely to give highly misleading results. The programme appears to have none of the controls and scientific discipline usually found in such exercises, and so cannot differentiate the factors that lead to success. Supplement companies – involved with Food for the Brain and their Schools Project trials – may use these trials to give the false impression of scientific validity for the products they sell.
- There is an over-emphasis on giving and selling supplements to children, which is not justified by science. The Food for the Brain web site specifically recommends the supplementation of all children with vitamin and oil pills. This may give the misleading impression that such supplements may be necessary in order for children to be healthy or do well at school. Children would benefit much more from improved diet than expensive supplements. If children are not eating an adequate diet, it is better for them to modify their diet – in order to get the nutrients they need – than to rely on pills. It is less expensive and the evidence says nutrients gained through diet are more effective than those taken through pills. Plus, a good diet also brings broader benefits (e.g. good diet is an effective way of avoiding obesity). If children are eating well, supplement pills will generally be unnecessary.
- The influence of the nutritional ideas of Patrick Holford’s Optimum Nutrition Programme may be disproportionately influencing thinking. Patrick is the founder and CEO of the charity and he earns income from supplement licensing deals and endorsements. Patrick’s ideas are based on the alternative medicine philosophy of Nutritional Therapy and Orthomolecular Medicine. This philosophy is highly disputed by dietitians, scientific nutritionists and scientists in general. Many worry that such ideas may lead to the over-consumption of supplements and/or the avoidance of effective medical treatment. At best, it is likely to lead to wasted money.
- Despite much publicity, there is still little evidence that using food supplements, such as omega 3, can generally boost children’s performance. This is still an area of much debate an the highly publicised ‘trails’ of such supplements have been heavily criticised by many and are seen as little more than publicity stunts for supplement companies. It would have been great if Food for the Brain had conducted high quality research into omega 3 supplements; however, their ‘trials’ also look like more publicity and marketing.
- The charity use inaccurate techniques to determine the need for children to take mineral supplements. Hair Mineral Analysis claims to be able to determine the levels of minerals in the body by analysing hair. However, the ability for this technique to be used in a clinical way is extremely controversial. The American Medical Association have banned the technique as its use can lead to health fraud in the sales of supplements. The Nutrition School that Patrick set up, ION, teaches the use of this technique as part of its curriculum. The programme director at the college has a private practice in Hair Mineral Analysis and Patrick Holford uses her company to carry out such analyses.
- There is inadequate regulation of the nutritional therapists in the UK. The title ‘Nutritionist’ is unprotected in the UK, unlike the term ‘Dietitian’. Nutritionists have no regulatory body which might oversee nutritionists working with children.
- The costs of taking the Food for the Brain’s approach of nutritional testing and taking supplements would be prohibitively expensive for most parents. The subsidiary company of Food for the Brain, The Brain Bio Centre, says that most of its clients spend between £600 and £1100 on tests and spend £2 to £3 per day on supplements. For a family of 3 children, the annual cost would be between £4000 and £6500.
- The charity recommends inaccurate techniques to look for ‘allergies and intolerances’ in children. Holford appears to regularly conflate allergy and intolerance. He gives inappropriate advice on diagnosing allergies and intolerance. And, once again, he happens to sell the ‘diagnostic’ tools that he’s promoting.
- The charity has given out dangerous advice regarding autism and elimination diets. At the start of the year, there were reports that Food for the Brain intervention in Merton had caused an autistic girl to suffer unhealthy weight loss along with sleep problems. However, until April 2007 Food for the Brain’s online action plan for autism still advised that children should eliminate “[l]ikely culprit foods such as wheat and dairy from the diet. In any case, avoid additives and preservatives”. The site did not advise parents to seek medical supervision – elimination diets can be harmful, if not managed properly – or mention the need to find appropriate replacement foods.
- Food for the Brain lists among its affiliations an American organization that holds strong anti-psychiatry views and has links with Scientology. Safe Harbor was set up by a prominent Scientology’s and promotes similar extreme anti-psychiatry views to L Ron Hubard and the Scientology movement. Patrick Holford is listed as a member of their Advisory Board. Surprisingly, one of the Food for the Brain’s psychologists, Melanie Herff, was involved in an expose of Safe Harbor as a Scientology front in a German newspaper. Why she is not so concerned now is not clear. Patrick’s own statements in the FFTB newsletter reflect this hostility to the medical profession and has describe conventional medical approaches to treating mental disorders as ‘mental straight-jacket’. We find is language unhelpful, and the extreme messages given by Safe harbor damaging, when communicating with parents who may have children with mental health problems.
In general, whilst we welcome initiatives to improve children’s diets, we are worried that Food for the Brain is using alternative medicine style approaches and personnel, and that a science-based dietary approach will tell us more about what works and what does not, and will be the best way of ensuring dietary improvements and safety for the children.